Casteism, Elitism, Hindutva Fascism – Challenges to Accessible, Inclusive, Fair and Just Education

Rohith Vemula’s unnatural death at the University of Hyderabad – not the first of a Dalit scholar in Indian academia – points yet again to the continuing rot that has spread within educational institutions in the country. No single political party or group needs to be singled out for blame, as the attacks on academic freedom have come from various sides, although in the events leading up to Rohit Vemula’s death, the clear hand of the Sangh Parivar elements is quite evident. The facts are known to all: There was tremendous pressure on him and four other Dalit scholars of the Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA) who had been suspended following an altercation with members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) – in which, as it now transpires, no ABVP member was injured. This issue of the PUCL Bulletin reproduces the text of the letter left behind by Rohith Vemula which speaks for itself.

Following the tragedy, from amongst the cacophony of noises from various quarters, the most malicious, dangerous and mischievous ones are those denying that caste discrimination lay behind Rohith’s death.

Given that the tragedy has fully exposed the extent of caste discrimination prevalent in academia, there is greater, not lesser need to ensure equality of opportunity and substantive equality in education and in jobs in both the public and private spheres.

Another spiteful report questioned whether he was a Dalit but mercifully that issue has been settled with the emergence of the SC certificate issued to Rohith.

A much more dangerous response came from Union Minister Bandaru Dattatreya who dubbed ASA  Dalit protestors as being, “casteist, extremist and anti-national”.  That this was not a stray statement but part of the carefully orchestrated strategy of the BJP government to dub any expression of dissent as anti-national, is revealed by BJP General Secretary Muralidhara Rao’s statement that  “Linkages of these forums on campuses with bigger anti-national agencies must be probed, investigated and curbed”.  The menacing overtones in the statement is not the usual bluff and bluster of a ruling party facing flak; it discloses the ugly reality of the witch hunts launched by the ruling BJP led Central government against individuals and groups, including Teesta Setalvad, GreenPeace and others, who questioned them.

Blows against academic freedom and targeting of the academic fraternity is by no means restricted to issues of caste discrimination or victimisation of Dalits. We recently witnessed the dismissal of Magsaysay Award-winning Professor Sandeep Pandey by the Banaras Hindu University, on the specious accusation that he was a sympathiser of “Naxalites” and anti-national forces. These same accusations have hounded Professor G.N. Saibaba of Delhi University, who though 90% disabled, was abducted by the Maharashtra police from the University and lodged in the notorious Anda Cell in Nagpur Central Jail. That his bail order was revoked by the Mumbai High Court forcing him to report back to prison adds another worrying aspect to the travails of rights defenders and conscientious activists.

FTII students of Pune, all young aspiring film-makers from various castes and communities, who have been waging a peaceful agitation merely demanding that appointments to senior positions follow established procedures  have faced needless violence at the hands of the Maharashtra police. Ditto the experience of students protesting against the cut in fellowships by the University Grants Commission. This time, the Delhi police – past masters at quelling dissent and falsely prosecuting innocents – showed they are second to none in silencing voices seeking justice and fair play.

Unfortunately the protest against the cut in fellowships by the UGC has not received due attention by mainstream media and larger civil society. As student leaders point out, the cut in fellowships highlights the Modi government’s faulty vision for education. On one hand the government keeps cutting allocations for priority sectors like education, food and social welfare; on the other, the Government of India is hell bent on signing the ‘binding commitment’ with the World Trade Organisation bringing education under ‘tradable’ services. The government has no qualms about the fact that once it signs the WTO documents,  it will be bound to protect the interests of foreign and domestic corporate houses who pursue trade in education; that this, in turn, will work against the interests of the students, teachers and larger society of the country by drastically reducing government spending in education are not concerns of the central government.

The challenges are numerous – casteism, Hindu majoritarian / supremacist fascism and unbridled corporate profiteering in education.

Rohith Vemula’s poignant letter highlights the plight of young people from marginalised communities who dare to dream – of not just improving their circumstances in life, but of becoming accomplished professionals, aware citizens, empowered human beings.

Rohith’s call is a call of conscience and vision – to renew our commitment to ensure that our society becomes more humane, tolerant, egalitarian, inclusive, equitable, fair and just. We cannot fail our future generations.

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